Welcome back to our wine structure series. We are halfway through, with just sweetness and alcohol left. If you missed the articles on acidity and tannin, make sure to check those out, too. Today we’re discussing sugar, one of my personal favorite things; specifically; sugar in wine. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re only talking about sweet wines, so don’t tune out if you prefer dry wines. Sugar is a very important part of wine.
Why should I care about sugar?
Sugar develops in grapes as they ripen. The longer they’re left on the vine, the less acidity that remains and the more sugar that is available. When the grapes are fermented, yeast is added, which then eats the sugar and creates alcohol. If all of the sugar is converted to alcohol the wine is considered dry. If residual sugar remains at the end, the wine is considered off-dry or sweet.
Yeast may stop eating before all of the sugar is gone, which means that the wine had very high sugar levels to begin with and the wine will be pretty sweet. Winemakers can also choose to remove or kill the yeast before all of the sugar is converted, which will leave you with a lower alcohol wine that is off-dry to sweet. Dryer wines tend to have higher alcohol content than sweeter wines because of this process, just don’t confuse this with fortified wines, which is a whole other conversation.
Sweetness trips up a lot of people for a few reasons. One of the major ones is that people are terrible at perceiving sweetness. It’s not your fault, though, it’s your taste buds. Even professional tasters have trouble with it. Many people perceive fruitiness as being sweet, when really that’s a flavor. A wine can be bone dry but fruit forward and some people call it sweet.
There is also no international standard for how to classify sweetness in wines. Every country, and sometimes every winemaker, has their own system. Winemakers are only occasionally required to put the sugar content on their labels.
Sugar isn’t the enemy
Wines with residual sugar tend to get a bad rap unless they’re Sauternes, ice wines, or fortified. This is because some winemakers will mask the taste of lower quality fruit by adding sugar to help enhance the fruitiness of the wine. There are plenty of bad wines with residual sugar, but there are also a lot of good ones that deserve a chance. Off-dry Rieslings are some of the most food-friendly, pleasant wines out there, along with Gewurztraminers. The key to these wines is balance. They’re high acid wines that really need the sugar to keep them from being overly tart. The sugar also helps increase the body, keeping the wines from seeming thin. Sugar rounds them out and makes them so much more enjoyable.
Sugar also helps with a wine’s ability to age. It’s a preservative that doesn’t decrease over time. This is why many of your high-end unfortified sweet wines, as well as high quality Rieslings can age just as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon. The sweetness doesn’t change over time, so the benefits to the body will always remain.